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The Bolton Cube fire is no surprise at all

The government needs to reliably ensure that British buildings are firesafe before pontificating about their beauty.

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Residents at the Bolton Cube – a purpose-built student block – have been evacuated following a tower fire, in which flames once again spread through the building, spread by the cladding outside.

The fact of a fire is not surprising: there are around 30,000 house fires requiring the attention of the fire service every year in the United Kingdom, with more than two-thirds of them following a kitchen fire or a malfunctioning appliance, the latter of which was the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire. Around 10,000 of those take place in tower blocks, but they pass by without incident because compartmentation – designed to contain fire within a single apartment – usually works perfectly.

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, the majority of local authorities acted fairly quickly to remove cladding from blocks they own and/or run. (Remember that most tower blocks in the United Kingdom, like Grenfell, have a mixture of owner-occupiers, social tenants and people in the private rented sector, regardless of whether they are run by a local authority or by a private organisation.) The majority of blocks run by local authorities and housing associations now have either completed or are in the process of completing the removal of their cladding.

But the private sector is another story. Most private sector tower blocks fall into two categories: purpose-built student blocks like the Bolton Cube, which are particularly ill-served because their tenants are transient and therefore poorly-placed to lobby their local MPs to tackle the problem, and blocks built for owner-occupiers and the private rented sector. In the latter, where there has been progress, it has been paid for by excessive, in some case ruinous, service charges levied on the building’s residents, and in the majority of cases, homeowners have been trapped in flats that have lost their value, are deep in negative equity and may well be a fire trap.

The Conservative politician Bob Neil, whose Bromley and Chislehurst has a number of blocks in private hands where residents are still living with potentially unsafe cladding, has been consistently and vocally advocating on behalf of his constituents. But the government has been sluggish in heeding his concerns. It should by now be obvious that unless the owners of blocks are compelled by government action or subsidised by government funds – probably a combination of both will be required – they are not going to equal, let alone surpass, the efforts of local authorities.

It’s not like the Conservative government is beneath interfering in the work of private developers and building companies: they have an entire commission devoted to the questions about whether or not these buildings meet Whitehall’s definition of “beauty”. A commitment to not only greater quantity but also greater quality of accommodation and the streets below them, should be a part of the government’s housing strategy. But bluntly the question of “beauty” should be the preserve of architects and the people who wish to enlist their services, be they housebuilders or homeowners. The government should spend less – read “none” – of its time pontificating about whether or not my block of flats is beautiful enough until they can reliably guarantee it is fire-safe.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

The row over Labour's broadband policy says as much about the right as the left

Because the thing that was truly horrifying about Stalin was his commitment to faster download speeds. Tonight's Evening Call.

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It’s all very well accusing the left of being unrealistic idealists, but Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has today actually managed to do something that most commentators assumed was impossible: they’ve got everyone talking about policy. So much so that it’s entirely dominated the political day, so let’s have at it.

The policy in question is the pledge of free, full-fibre broadband for everyone in the UK by 2030 (a date, you’ll notice, which is conveniently at least three elections away, and very possibly, in light of recent history, many more). The party says it would achieve this by nationalising the Openreach part of BT, and by introducing a tax on tech giants. The cost? A cool £20bn.

Is this a good idea? I haven’t the foggiest. The public sector often isn’t great at running such things, and it would leave the quality of national broadband infrastructure at the mercy of Treasury whims. On the flipside, though, as anyone who has moved house in the last decade and found themselves offline for two months could tell you, it often doesn’t feel like the private sector is great at running such things either.

Fifteen years ago, what’s more, broadband was a luxury. Now it’s a utility, and one that’s increasingly necessary for anyone who wants to live in the modern world. There is nothing particularly weird about the idea that a government should be in charge of broadband cables, in the same way they’ve historically tended to be in charge of roads or power lines.

There’s been pushback from the right, of course, including the inevitable and baffling cries of “Stalinism” (because the thing that was truly horrifying about Stalin was his commitment to faster download speeds). But my suspicion is that tells us more about the right’s ideological refusal to countenance any expansion of the role of the state, than it does about any actual problems that the proposal may have.

Two other thoughts. Firstly, despite the attacks, it feels to me like there’s a direct parallel between this policy and the Tory’s pledge of £500m to reopen railway lines closed by the Beeching cuts of the early 1960s. Both are infrastructure policies which seem to be targeted at the parties’ respective core votes (young people who move house a lot and use the internet for everything; old people who remember the good old days). And both, I fear, are under-estimating the cost of their proposal: on Twitter, rail expert Gareth Dennis points out that £500m is enough to re-open about 25 miles of line – hardly the reversal of Beeching that the name implies.

Secondly, as former pollster James Morris tweeted last night after a focus group: “If they don’t trust you it doesn’t matter what you promise them.” In other words, the popularity or otherwise of the policy may not actually matter. What a cheery thought.

Good day for...

The power of small trade unions. In an enlightening piece this afternoon, Patrick noted that many of Labour’s most radical policies were coming from the Communication Workers’ Union. Larger trade unions, like Len Mcclusky’s Unite, have by contrast tended to be a block on radicalism. It’s worth a read.

Bad day for...

The Brexit Party’s increasingly flimsy-looking commitment to represent the real people of Britain. The party has named Ed Punchard, a survivor of the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, as its candidate for Tynemouth – despite the fact he’s lived in Australia for nearly 30 years, and has only “passed through” the area until recently.

Punchard told local newspaper Chronicle Live that he has a “great fondness for the North East because of [his] time in the North Sea”. Well then.

Quote of the day

“I’m going to set up a lobbying firm called Historians Against Ahistorical Nonsense and it will just be me, becoming increasingly hoarse, begging people to stop pointing at things and calling them gulags.”

Dr Charlotte Riley, a historian at the University of Southampton, responding to Reaction’s Ian Martin’s apparently sincere suggestion that free broadband was a step on the road to the gulag.

Everybody’s talking about...

The electoral horserace, obviously, because despite our best intentions and today’s sudden burst of policy, we’re pretty much all more interested in who’s going to win than we are in what they’ll do afterwards.

If you too want to know who’s winning – and you’re only human – then you should read the excellent livechat that Stephen and Patrick held earlier in which they delved into that very question.

Everybody should be talking about...

The fact that Jeremy Corbyn was last night photographed holding a copy of Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor, an unofficial Doctor Who spin off DVD featuring a rapacious and ultra-capitalist slug creature, who appeared on the show twice in the mid-1980s, as well as former companion Sophie Aldred (Ace!) in full monster make-up.

If you don’t get this reference – and I hope for your sake you don’t – it is difficult to convey quite how weird this is. Honestly, it’s like finding out that Boris Johnson is a fan of Stephen’s Harry Potter fan fic. But the section of the nerdsphere that remembers the 1990s, when stuff like this was all we had instead of new Doctor Who, are unlikely to soon recover from the shock.

Corbyn had been handed the DVD by the actor Nabil Shaban, who plays the slug in question. But don’t google it, it’ll only upset you.

Housekeeping

I’m taking next week off so that I can go to Ikea and Prague (though not, you note, Ikea in Prague). Evening Call will instead be written by a motley selection of my excellent colleagues.

Questions? Comments? Abuse? Tell me.

If you’ve been forwarded this email, you can sign up to receive it directly here.

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. He writes the Evening Call newsletter. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Ed Davey exposes the awkward truth about free movement and infrastructure spending

You can promise all you like about infrastructure but you can't deliver on it while cutting migration.

 

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One of the areas of consensus in this election is about infrastructure spending: Sajid Javid is proposing £20bn of infrastructure spending, John McDonnell is promising upwards of £50bn. 

It was much the same in the speech given by Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader and finance spokesperson, which announced a swathe of infrastructure projects to combat climate change. The speech contained two headline generators: for the local and regional papers, a commitment to end Leeds’ unwanted status as the only major city in Europe without a public transit system and £100bn of funding for measures to tackle the climate crisis for the national press. 

But Davey made a point that hasn’t sufficiently entered the national debate about these infrastructure policies: the free movement of people within the European Economic Area, which the United Kingdom is currently a member of thanks to our membership of the EU. One of the many, many reasons that government spending is not like household spending is that building new infrastructure is not like going out and buying a kettle: you can announce as many infrastructure projects as you want but if you don’t have the people to carry them out they won’t happen. 

You are also significantly less likely to attract the workers you need on short-term visas that provide them with no security once their job ends and no real protections in the labour market. The blunt truth is that the form of Brexit envisaged by the Conservatives has real and immediate implications for Javid’s ability, or lack thereof, to keep his promises on infrastructure spending. If you don’t have the access to the European labour market that we currently enjoy, you cannot in the short term meet those infrastructure requirements. 

It’s also why the fight within Labour about whether or not to keep the freedom of movement in the new deal it would seek to negotiate with the EU – Corbyn appeared to back its continuation but the leadership has since rowed back, and the party is divided – matters. It is not just an electoral issue: whether you are in or out of the EU, the ability to meet these infrastructure promises will be severely compromised if you don’t.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Labour's promise of free broadband is a reminder of the internet’s true history

Despite the myth of market rule, digital technology has always relied on state investment. 

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The internet seemed good at first. We’d dial up modems to the flickering sound of distant connections and scroll through clunky squares of clashing fonts. Because there were so few search engines, we asked Jeeves. On a suite of primary school monitors in ICT class I slowly punched out the individual letters for Yahoo with chubby fingers, marvelling that one of my classmates already knew what a “search engine” did. 

Today, being online is like stepping into a pixelated snowstorm that fluctuates hot and cold. The internet has compressed distance, but it has also distorted our sense of scale, amplifying small incidents with the volume of crashing waves and rewarding the salacious and short-term. The internet economy is one of platform companies, private power, deepening wealth inequalities and weakening labour protections; politically, it has played a part in spreading misinformation and fragmenting universal truths. 

What would a better internet look like? There isn’t a straightforward or single answer, but one suggestion has arrived today from Labour, which pledged to provide free fibre-optic broadband to every household and business in the United Kingdom. The party estimates that the pledge, which would see BT's broadband arm nationalised, would cost £20.3bn to implement and £230m a year thereafter to maintain. The policy would make broadband a right rather than a commodity, guaranteeing access to UK households and bringing ownership of the network under public control. 

It represents a rupture with the notion that the private sector is best placed to innovate. The internet’s early cheerleaders were the product of a male, Californian worldview that fused the New Left counterculture of the 1960s with a right-wing, anti-statist economics. They coalesced around Wired magazine and believed in the web’s meritocratic potential to create a Jeffersonian cyberspace where individual liberty and market libertarianism would triumph. Contemporary platforms today benefit from this free-market mythos.

In reality, though, the internet has always relied on state funding. Arpanet, the packet-switching network that was founded in 1969 and proved formative to the modern web, was funded by the US Department of Defence. Minitel, a 1980s French public-sector internet, was an open space of chatrooms, games and electronic messaging pioneered in Saint-Malo with terminals distributed by local authorities. Both show there was no such thing as a pure “free market” for the technologies and innovations that formed the basis of the modern web. 

As my colleague Stephen Bush has pointed out, Labour’s policy is appealing because the web is inextricable from life. Our friendships, families, communities and workplaces rely upon the broadband cables that coarse through cities and are laid beneath the sea. The internet is an infrastructure of modern life, as necessary as motorways or phone lines; you need it to file tax returns, apply for Universal Credit or find somewhere to live. Online access has become a prerequisite for survival at a time when libraries and job centres with free internet are disappearing.  

Labour’s policy has been labelled “broadband communism” by detractors. But a longer and more detailed look at history shows that although the policy is costly, it is not as radical as it first seems. In the early 1990s, British Telecom began work on a six-year project to replace outdated copper cables with fibre-optic alternatives and built two factories to manufacture components. That contemporary Britain lacks fibre-optic broadband is the result of Margaret Thatcher’s decision in 1990 to halt BT’s rollout, deeming it anticompetitive due to the company’s monopoly over the technology. Today, the consequences of this decision are clear: the UK lags behind other countries for broadband speed, and generous packages of state aid have been made available to the private sector in an effort to incentivise companies to deliver broadband in rural areas.

The logic of market competition, where an array of providers bid for contracts and ostensibly deliver a better service, is at odds with large-scale, interconnected infrastructures like broadband. Fibre-optic cables need to be laid en-masse and depend on economies of scale. More generally, markets don’t provide people with what they need, but rather with what they can afford to pay for. Leaving the provision of goods that are essential for human flourishing to the market results in vast inequalities and, in the case of broadband, invariably patchy coverage. 

The history of experiments like Minitel show the internet has always relied, in part, upon the state. But these histories also point towards alternative models that exemplify a radical and hopeful vision: an equitable, decommodified internet. 

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor. 

Would Labour's plans to nationalise BT Openreach be legal under EU rules?

Nothing in EU rules prohibits nationalisation - they do however have implications for how you run nationalised and privatised services alike.

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Would Labour’s plans to nationalise BT Openreach fall foul of the European Union’s competition rules? That’s the question being asked by some of our readers and pushed by the Conservatives.

The answer is “well, it depends on what they want to do with it afterwards”. There is nothing in the EU’s rules – or in the level playing field commitments that any meaningful free trade agreement with the EU would require – that prevents a government taking Openreach, or any other bit of the economy, into public hands. It does however, place limitations on how you could run Openreach, or any other bit of the economy, in public hands.

While the proposals on what Labour would actually do with Openreach aren’t as detailed as I would like, they look to be planning to run Openreach effectively in the same way the government currently runs railway tracks and roads – in which the government provides, maintains and develops rail and road, but private cars, trains, trucks and lorries roll over them – which wouldn’t fall foul of level-playing field rules.

If you had a situation in which the day-to-day running of Openreach made it impossible for other broadband providers to operate, then that could open a future government up to a court challenge under the rules of the single market or under any free trade agreement with the European Union. But this wouldn’t force the government to sell off Openreach, just to tweak it

As I wrote this morning, while we can assess and reach a firm judgement one way or the other on the desirability of free at the point of use broadband, we can’t be as clear about the value of nationalising Openreach – at a cost of £20bn according to Labour, and perhaps more according to BT itself – until we have a better idea of how Labour proposes to run Openreach.

Equally, until we have that detail, we can’t say with any confidence what it would mean for the future institutional relationship with the EU that a Labour government would be able to tolerate.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.